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Early voting on the DRE machine in Chicago

Sequoiaedgewithverivoteprinter Yesterday, I did early voting at the Cook County Commissioners office downtown. I recommend for everyone to vote early. It was great to not have to wait in lines or to not feel rushed.

What was cool was being able to use the new DRE voting interfaces. Cook County uses the Sequoia AVC Edge with Verivote Printer model. Thus there is a paper trail. I was confident that the interface would be well designed, because Veronica Belsuzarri, former UIC student and Design for Democracy alum did the work. Whitney Quesenbery had also observed the usability testing of the system, so it met the criteria for user-centered design using the best design system in the country. Tee Hee.

The ballot was available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. From earlier versions of the interface, they had rounded the boxes and buttoms, so that it had greater affordance of ATM interfaces. It was easy to navigate, even between the review screens and the voting screens. The paper trail was interesting because it ran as an enclosed receipt on the side. You had to confirm your acceptance of the paper receipt on the electronic interface. I am fascinated by how they programed the interaction between those two mechanisms. It had the headphones for audio voting and the special navigation buttons for those with low visibility.

Only two complaints:

There was a computer error message that popped up after I had pressed the button to cast my vote.  I called over one of the election judges, who took a photograph with her camera phone of the screen. That part was a little scary because I wondered if I would lose my vote. But we clicked the continue button and my vote was confirmed, so all was well.

The design was rather drab with the white background. The great thing about electronic interfaces is that you have the ability to use color and more interesting graphics.

But all in all, it was a great voting experience. If only, I had better candidates to vote for it would have been perfect. 

Social/political engagement under 35

Last Wednesday, I attended a Chicago Council on Global Affairs talk by Sarah Chayes, former NPR reporter and now organizer of a non profit corporation in Kandahar Afganistan called Arghand. Sarah's talk was very inspiring, not in the sense of "I'm glad you are doing this because I would never do it," which is what most people mean by the term. It was inspiring in the sense that I could understand how someone can find affinity with a place in chaos and want to pitch in and bring order. More importantly, to do so in such a sense that one understands how the uniqueness of who you are and how you are positioned in society can help.

Sarah's position of a Pastun's speaking, tall white American woman, former jounarlist, and friend of the Karzai family in Afganistan allows her to cross the boundaries others cannot in order to bring social and economic justice to Kandahar. She believes that Kandahar is suffering under the corruption of the war lords that US policy, or lack there of in Afganistan has put in place. She is too tall to dress like a woman, so she dresses like a man and is allowed into male spaces (socially and politically). She has access to the highest officials and the boldness to say what needs to be said, about the electric system, to make things happen.

She does not shrug off the danger she is in, as a politically outspoken critic of Afgani warlords and Pakistan's role in supporting the Taliban, but she realizes that her chances of getting killed are higher driving on Lake Shore Drive than in Kandahar.

There are three aspects of her talk and the dinner conversation that followed that I found intellectually stimulating:

  1. American policy is more interested in security than governance.
  2. The struggle of our generation is to eliminate the us/them distinction of "clash of civilization"
  3. Rule of law is the exportable aspect of American "democracy"

Security versus Governance

From both a domestic and foreign policy perspective, America seems to prioritize security issues (protecting us from them) over governance (providing for the basic material, social, and emotional needs of the populace.) Sarah talked about her attempts to get officials interested in alternative farming programs and the electric plant and being rebuffed by the attitude, "We will worry about that later." The same can almost be said about domestic policy. We are being told to worry about terrorists, Mexican immigrants, and homosexuals while the infrastructure of our schools, cities, and livelihoods are falling apart.  According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, US policy is stuck at safety, ignoring the physiological, and cannot get to love.

End of the "Clash of Civilizations" rhetoric

This is the dark legacy of Bush's reaction to September 11. The one good thing about the crisis in North Korea is that it messes up the West versus Islam construction of the "Axis of Evil." One of the things that makes me sad about the "veil" discussion in Europe (particularly Britain with Straw and Blair and in France) is that these leaders are creating monolithic us (Europeans) and others  (Moslems). Do note that the juxtaposition is Europeans versus Moslems, who could also be Europeans. I think Sarah is right that if this generation can eliminate the distinctions between us and others, which was and always has been the goal of anthropology, then we will have fought our dragon.

Rule of Law as America's legacy of Democracy

This topic brought up interesting questions for me about democracy in Islamic countries, because is not Sharia law, Rule of Law? The other interesting thing is that rule of law is relatively recent here. The Ku Klux Klan existed outside of the law as a form of punishment until the late 1960s. Really, Rule of Law did not exist in America for most Americans until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And even then, not all people abide by the law. It reminds me that there are so many levels of governance (International, national, regional, state, local) and that the look and feel of laws should be fluid at these different levels, as it is now. Thus in democracy building efforts, these things should be taken into account.

The last thing about the dinner, which was $250 per person, was that I was the only person of color and person under the age of 44, which was Sarah's age. Everyone else was in their 60s if not older and seemed more interested in telling the speaker how to live her life and run her business, than to listen to what she had to say. Not being a shrinking violet, I was unable to ask her questions and talk until we grabbed a taxi together.

At one point early in the evening, Marshall M. Bouton, the President of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, said that people under 35 are not interested in foreign relations today. Again, I was not given the opportunity to say anything, because some else spoke up. But it makes me think if all the "policy" movers and shakers can only engage at $250 per person and have the conversations hogged by white, over 65 year old, men; how and why can you get engaged.

Lear and rethinking flattery

Last Saturday, I saw the Goodman Theater's production of King Lear, starring Stacey Keach. I had forgotten how dark and violent Shakespeare's tragedies are. Every scene was one of extreme sex and/or violence making video games seem tame.

But what stuck me most was the core theme about intergenerational conflict and the truth. The tragedy starts when Cordelia refuses to flatter her father with "false" words as her sisters do. He banishes her and splits the Kingdom between the two older sisters, leaving himself dependent on their kindness. Lear's tragedy is his inability to see until too late the truth of Cordelia versus the falseness of her siblings, who "abuse" him.  Lear's plight is echoed in the tragedy of Gloucester, who cannot see the falseness of his illegitimate son, Edgar, and eventually has is eyes gouged out.

Being on the younger side of the intergenerational conflict, it makes me worried when leaders prefer false flattery to being told the truth. What happens when there is no fool to enlighten the king?

The Doll Test 1940/2005

Blackisbeautiful The year was 1979. I had graduated from Fisher Price wobble people to Barbie Dolls.  My sisters and I opened the Sears Big Book catelogue, and I circled the Barbie dolls I wanted, along with the Dream Corvette, Dream Townhouse, and a slew of other doll-sized consumerables. 

Christmas day. I hungerly open my presents. Flying paper and ribbons revel the Dream Corvette. Yes, now I know I got the doll. More flying paper and ribbons revel a box, there is a blown leg peeking out of a red sequined dress. I like the dress; red is my favorite color.  I open the box and am disappointed. It was okay that the Barbie was black, but she didn't have long flowing hair that I could comb.

The difference between me and black girls in the 1940s and today it seems is that I wasn't upset that the doll was black, I was just upset that she did not have hair I could comb. This is probably tied tothe fact that my mother was a hairdresser and that one of my favorite activities was brushing my grandmother's long silver hair.
According to an ABC News Report, What Dolls Can Tell Us About Race in the US, a New York City high school student, Kiri Davis, created a short video of pre-school girls selecting between black and white dolls, (1) which doll is good or bad, and (2) which doll do you think looks like you. The results according to the report:

Davis asked 4- and 5-year-old kids at a Harlem school the same question in 2005. She found the children's answers were not that different.

In Davis' test, 15 of the 21 children said that the white doll was good and pretty, and that the black doll bad.

In addition, the black girls hesitated when choosing the "bad" black dolls who looked like them. The conclusion is that at the age of 3-5 these girls have already internalized the negative stereotypes of blackness.

Now, I was raised with a healthy race identity. My parents, aunts, and uncles were instrumental in getting Black History Month and African American achievements in the school and in my home in the 1970s. My grandmother would use brown markers and paint to "colorize" all cards and even holiday elves, so that my siblings and I would "see black faces." We wore T-shirts saying "Black is Beautiful" and as I looked around my family, we were a pretty good looking bunch.

This buffered me when in 3rd grade I and others were bussed from our predominately black schools into predominately white suburban schools. Due to tracking, I was never in another class with another black person until maybe college. And the maybe is tied to the fact that it may not have been actually until graduate school.

All that time and perhaps in spite of that, I preferred black dolls, although long hair was required for braiding purposes. In fact, I would always take pride in the fact that the color of my skin was the milk chocolate brown of "black doll" plastic. I am still searching for that color number. The only moment of "weakness" was in 7th grade when I thought maybe a Micheal Jackson nose job was in order, but I got over that fast, like the Jeri Curl.

So why is this self-hatred still continuing in the 21st century? In her 20th anniversary show on Broadway, Whoopi Goldberg dropped the skit of the girl with the yellow towell longing for blue eyes saying, "Things have changed." But maybe they haven't enough because there is no "black is beautiful, black is good" movement and at 3-5 years old you can't read on their own "the great achievements of the black race".

Yet in a world where you can get a doll matched to your hair texture, eye, and skin color, it is a tragedy that 3-5 year old girls are still searching for the bluest eye. Let's hope they get the positive messages of black beauty and pride (they should have to undergo India Aire and Jill Scott therapy) to serve as a buffer from the racist representations that seed this self-hatred.

American President: the Game Show

I was reading John Myers analysis of tonight's California gubenatorial debate between Phil Angelides and Governer Schwarzenegger on his blog, Capital Notes. His discussion of the format of the debates led me to consider an innovative approach to conducting presidential elections based on game shows.

Note: This is satire, so take it as such.

Games for Campaign Financing Reform

Welcome to this week's episode of Presidential Jeopardy, where Presidential hopefuls, in order to raise campaign dollars, must answer questions in six important categories: Constitutional Law, Foreign Policy and Diplomacy, World Geography, Real US History (not those in your textbooks), Social and Economic Justice, and Political Scandal.

Today's constants include:
Senator John McCain of Arizona. Formal naval aviator, prisoner of war, long time member of Congress, and father of 7, Senator McCain is considered a bi-partisan bridge-building. Welcome, Senator.

Thanks Alex, glad to be here. Wish we had something like this for the 2000 elections.

Former govenor of Virginia, Mark Warner. Named one of the nations best 5 govenors and leading Virginia to be #1 in best managed states, Mark Warner is father of 3 and a young presidential hopeful. Welcome Mr. Warner.

Thanks Alex.

Our returning champion with $355 million is Hilary Clinton, esteemed Senator from New York, former First Lady, and mother of one. Welcome back, Senator Clinton. You cleaned up in the category of political scandal last week.

Well, Alex, its about making something good out of that experience.

You know the drill. Points are higher for Presidential Jeopardy, with the lowest questions set at $1000 each.

Games of Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

Welcome back to Survivor: Brussels.

Treachery, back-stabbing, deception, lies, and just plain mean spiritedness is the name of the game in Survivor: Brussels.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen many US presidential hopefuls voted off the city by the strong EU-25 team. Meanwhile the Asian Tigers have attempted to collude with the OPEC League to show American policy in the worst light, but the US Presidential Hopefuls still seem to survive through back room deals and unilaterial agreements. Can Asia and OPEC work together to vote off George Allen and the rest of the American team?

Games of Domestic Policy

Al Gore, come on down. You're the next contestant on The Price is Right.

So Al, can I call you Al? We are going to show you some everyday household products and ask you to tell us the MSRP (manufacturers suggested retail price). If you guess correctly, you will advance to our next round and a chance to win an all expense paid trip in Air Force One. Are you ready to play?

Yes, I'm ready Bob.

The lovely Janine is holding a half-gallon carton of whole milk (non-organic)? Can you tell me the price of this carton?


Oh, I'm sorry Al. The current price of a half-gallon carton of whole milk is $2.29. Thank you for competing on the Price is Right.


As you could see this would be a better way to elect officials than the staged public debates, town hall meetings, and dirty campaign ads that we use to judge hopefuls today. Perhaps, it will re-engage people in the political process and make good TV as well.

Anonymity in the Blogsphere

People read my blog. This knowledge has become somewhat disconcerting because all of a sudden I am extremely self-conscious about what I write. Before when I got 1 to 2 hits per day, I felt it was more of a public journal, but all of a sudden I feel accountable for what I write. So to self-censor or not? That is the question.

The Performance of Democracy

This morning I testified at the Cook County Commissioner's Board Room on the behalf of the Cook County Bureau of Health Services. It was fascinating to see governmentality in action. The issue was a report produced by Northwestern University about the Cook County Health System. While the characterization of the challenges facing the Bureau were accurate enough, two issues turned out to be politically charged.

A recommendation to create an independent "blue ribbon commission" to oversee the governance of the system.

This led to many grandstanding performances by some Commissioners about the failure of such committees in the past (particularly the 1970s), what were the implications regarding patronage in hiring, how this would create further distance between governance and practice, how the Commissioners are already addressing the issues in the report, and rather the "real" issue was expertise of employees of the bureau or the transparency of the hiring process.

What was interesting was how quickly the postures were established, like in a morality play, by the politicians who used up a lot of the hearing time to speak as opposed to listen to the citizens who came to testify.

The 10% across the line budget reductions in all departments in the Bureau.

This part of the performance was very poignant because it was made up of doctor's telling stories about how "patient X" would not receive treatments because of the cuts. I demostrated to me a certain ineffectiveness of the narrative technique, which is what we do through personas and scenarios. It results in a kind of numbness like watching two hours of an Oxfam commercial. About 15 doctor's presented I think. During that time, Commissioners got up and left, came back, held side conversations, nodded off. Some actually asked really engaging questions about the details of the finances or staffing, but did not receive detailed answers.

I was struck by thier inattentiveness, although they did express interest in hearing what the doctors had to say.

What becomes apparent in this performance of democracy is the lack of everyday citizens in the audience or the chorus even. This is the case with other public hearings that I have attended. It was mentioned that patients who should be there but could not be because they are working. Should governance be a weekend activity?

This performance reconfirmed for me that governance happens on the local level, while all of our focus is on the Federal government. The Fed is basically the funding body, whose decisions to fund or cut enables things to happen. The State passes these things through to the local level, where decisions on allocations and the impacts of implementation are really decided. Yet, when we were doing are vote project. It was at the local level where the least information to monitor choices was available.

Somehow we have gotten governance wrong headed and it is turning out to be a tragedy.

Wall Street's ownership over the public good

In today's NY Times, there is an insightful article, How Did Newspapers Land in This Mess?, by Richardf Siklos about the current challenges of newspapers owned by what he terms the "public market," or affectionately known as Wall Street, in aligning their shareholder's needs with that of the public good. At the heart of the article is an analysis of the three different ownership structures in current newspaper media: public market, private, and private equity.

His argument is that privately owned companies-- "Cox Communications (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) to Mortimer B. Zuckerman (The Daily News in New York). A nonprofit group owns The St. Petersburg Times in Florida"-- experience less conflict with serving the public good. And  publically-owned newspapers companies like the Tribune (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times), Gannet (USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post ), McClatchy Corporation (Sacramento Bee) are currently mired in conflicts between their shareholders and the public good, represented through their editorial boards. At the center of this conflict is the Tribune management and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. has a fascinating analysis of the conflict, which at its heart is about how do public institutions like the newspaper both remain financially sustainable and maintain their mission to keep the public informed about events and the meaning of events that affect their lives. 

The story ends where it began with a quote by Scott Flanders, CEO of Freedom Communications which owns the Orange County Register in California:

MR. FLANDERS was, not surprisingly, quite buoyant about private ownership. He noted, for example, that with business flat at The Orange County Register, his company opted not to revamp it but to start a breezy new tabloid called O.C. Report aimed at people who say they are too busy to read The Register. And he has some time to make it work. “We’re going to be $20 million in the hole before we’re even close to breaking even,” he said. (Note: I wonder if that strategy was the source of the Chicago Sun Times's Red Streak paper.)

More than just about the consolidation of media under corporate owners, this ties to my previous post about the reliance of corporations to serve the public good, but the answers are much more confusing. Ideally, public ownership should be the most democractic structure in journalism (i.e. the people vote with their readership, which effects circulation and advertising, which effects ROI for shareholders, who respond by making decisions that meet the public's demand). So the story goes. By extention, private ownership should lead to tyranny, as in the case of Hearst papers from the 1880s to the 1930s, but it also allows the paper to run unprofitably. Hearst supported the paper with his other wealth from mining, etc. But it does not seem to work that way.

Is it because the people who want to own newspapers are more benevolent? Is it because the corporation as controlled by market forces and the whims of shareholders, whose primary motive is the profit motive, is truely a sociopath, as laid out in the film the Corporation?

Simplistically, it seems that for democracy to function in an advanced capitalist country like the US, ordinary people need to be able to (1) vote for corporate board members and for corporate decisions at the level and depth of accountability that we do for our congressperson, or (2) return to our sense of government acting on the basis of the public good and be willing to fund through taxes and vote more directly on budget allocations, perhaps like we do for our 401K.  Are these the steps towards ensuring democracy? If I knew the answers, I'd run for President, but then again as in the immortal words of Wyclef Jean:

If I was President
I'd get elected on Friday
Assasinated on Saturday
Buried on Sunday
They'd go back to work on Monday
If I was President (if I was President)
If I was President (if I was President)

It does make me want to investigate more of how people are trying to solve these problems throughout the world. One of the most humbling experiences of the GMF is realizing the extent to which Europe has solved some problems that the US has not resolved and vice versa. It was even interesting to see Ranjan's presentation about the Indian voting machine and his joke about helping the US, because the humor is in the fact that India could actually help the US in this area rather than vice versa.

Sometimes I feel that the advantage of being an African American in discussions about American Democracy is that we don't believe the hype although we live for the hope.

I have been reading more closely Robin Einhorn's American Taxation, American Slavery. What I am finding interesting in her analysis is that more progressive American democracies thrived in contexts, like Massachussets, where there was a certain amount of intrusion by the local government in people's lives (like being able to go into people's homes to take accounts of property) but there were frequent and highly participatory structures of accountability (local elections were held annually). Did you know that Massachusset's ended slavery in that state when an African slave, Quork Walker, successfully sued that slavery was in violation of the State's Constitution's statement that all men are "born free and equal"? Source: